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English to Shelta Lexicon

Shelta, What's in a Name?



To ensure that succeeding generations of Irish Travellers will speak The Cant as a language, and not as a miscellaneous collection of "buzz-words."

Ground Rules:

Shelta is defined here as the language originally used by Irish Travellers in America around 1875 A.D. and its words are printed in italics when used anywhere in this web site. The lexicon linked above contains many words that I believe were used by our people in that era, spelled phonetically in English the way we would write them down if we heard them spoken today, in my judgment.

That judgment is bound to be faulty. I am far from expert at this and the source materials (notably "The Secret Languages of Ireland," published in 1937) routinely offer a different pronunciation of the same words by each Traveller encountered. On the other hand, I seem to be the only Irish-American Traveller willing to work on this, so if you have any complaints, stuff them! (In an e-mail and send them to: Travellers' Rest)

While I'm explaining: you'll notice that I always spell "Traveller" with two "l"s, the Irish way. It's an affectation. Sorry, but I like it that way.

Shelta words which are still used in The Cant (defined as the language of current Irish Travellers in America) will not be listed in consideration of the Travellers' general preference for privacy. Copies of the lexicon were circulated among several other Irish Travellers for editing before publication here, in an effort to ensure that such privacy is maintained.


Grammar? Yes, grammar. I'm making up rules as I go along but they seem to me to be reasonable approximations to the ways these new/old words were often used by our ancestors.

English provides the principal infrastructure for Shelta; that is more so now than before, of course.

I'll use an old Tinker's word for an example: grooskill, meaning "punch" (the hand tool). Because it sounds like "punch" (in the sense of "sock somebody in the face") in English, under my rules (and common sense), it also means that in reborn Shelta. The same is true of "punch" as an alcoholic drink or "punch" used as a metaphor for "enliven" or even "verve."

As you can see, noun and verb forms are interchangeable; context and placement determining how each Shelta word is being used at each occurrence. And while we're in a rule-making mood about them, why not let "a person or thing that punches" (the "puncher") be grooskiller and "one who is punched" (the "punchee") be grooskillee? But on second thought, grooskilled might seem more natural to the English speaker. The noun "punch" would still be grooskill, of course.

The past tense is determined by adding the suffix "-ed" onto the Shelta verb, just as in English: "punched" = grooskilled.

The future tense is constructed by prefacing misli-in too to the verb, as in "I will (am going to) punch you" = Mweel misli-in too grooskill yoordjeel. If that sounds contrived, so be it. A future tense is as necessary now as it was a hundred years or more ago, and this is apparently how our ancesters handled it, much like the English language does. I am using an alternative spelling and pronunciation of the more familiar Cant word here to avoid confusion with that action verb. Those who know the Cant will know which word I am referring to; otherwise: my apologies.

Plurals of nouns and the third person singular of verbs are represented by attaching the suffix "s." "Punches" = grooskills. "The fellow punches hard." = An feen grooskills tom. (Actually mishes or loobers was commonly used for "hits" or "punches" but you get my meaning here, I trust.)

Possessives are formed by adding an apostrophe and "s", a suffix, to the root Shelta noun, as in English again. So the sentence: "That fellow's punches are hard." would be rendered: An feen's grooskills tom.

That last sentence illustrates two important deficiencies in Shelta, the lack of the various forms of the verb "to be" and the lack of definite articles and demonstrative pronouns, such as: "this" and "that." Take my advice: just use the occasional English word to cover those gaps. That's exactly what our ancestors did. If you want to play games, "dis" for "this" and "dat" for "that" etc., should muddle the English tracks sufficiently to please even the most cryptic among us.

Adjective and adverb forms are also interchangeable and can be developed from nouns and verbs by adding the usual English adjectival endings: mostly "-y" to adjectives and "-ly" to adverbs. So if one wanted to describe a person as "punchy," he or she would be grooskilly. If "punchly" had been suitable for an adverb, in Shelta both the forms would have the same spelling in this case because grooskill already ends in an "l."

Comparative and superlative endings for adjectives are the same as in English: -er and -est.

A continuing state, described by an adjective, say "punchiness" from "punchy," would take the traditional Shelta suffix of "-ath" to convert it into such a word. "Punchiness" = grooskillyath.

A continuing state, described by a verb, say "punched-out" from "(to) punch," would take the traditional Shelta prefix of "a-" (dash included) to convert it into such a word. "Punched-out" = a-grooskill. The "a-" is a long "a" pronounced as in "father."

In simple statements, the subject precedes the verb which precedes the object, if any. It's all ended with a period, just as in English. Sample in English: Winnie (<subject) socked (<verb) Mickey (<object). Shelta: Winnie grooskilled Mickey.

In simple questions, the first word in the phrase or sentence is A, followed by the verb, subject and object, if any, and the sentence is closed with an English question mark. Sample in Shelta: A grooskilled hoo Mickey, Winnie? (Did you punch Mickey, Winnie?") This "A-" is also a long "A" pronounced as in "father."

Speaking of pronunciation, a phonetic spelling conversion guide is included for the more studious reader. It is an image file, fairly slow to load, because of the special characters required that are not included in the fonts of your web browsers. This guide has been used to assemble the list of words, or lexicon, in phonetic Shelta with English translations. However, it will not normally be necessary to refer to this guide when using the lexicon. If you are studious (or just curious (:>D), click on the following link: Pronunciation Guide. Just remember that the changes from Shelta spelling into phonetic English will have already been made when you read the Shelta words and their translation.

Shelta to English Lexicon

English to Shelta Lexicon

Why is it called Shelta?


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Copyright 1998, by Richard J. Waters